Standing at the edge of the bluff, I counted the seconds before I had to step back from the heat. In that moment—that still delay where a breeze blew from behind and sent subtle whiffs of mountain air across my face—I could breathe. It was an odd sensation. The heat from the raging wild fire devouring the desert floor rose up over the wall of the bluff, wrapping my legs to the knee, and cool mountain-scented air pushed down across my face and chest. I didn’t waste it.
Kneeling, I tore sandy earth away from the base of a twisted and bent Joshua tree with my hands. I had been eying the plant for a few days, deciding if I liked it well enough to make it my memorial. I decided tonight, as the fire roared behind it, I would never find a better place.
Back lit, the Joshua tree looked like a dragon. Its branches many heads and wings, ready to take flight home to a mythical land or, like Draconus in Greek mythology, guard a magical, sacred place. The smell of burning earth—acrid and painful to inhale but laced with the pungently pleasant scent of green sage—made the place feel sacred.
I ignored the heat creeping closer from the fire and scraped at the hard packed soil under the sand, deepening the hole. When my fingers were sore and the base of the small pit was cool and deep enough that I thought my treasure would stay buried, I pulled the worn envelope from my pocket. Lifting the flap, I ran my finger through the priceless dust inside.
Anything could have made it. It could have been ashes from the hardwood floor or fabric from the couch. It could have been papers from some undone piece of homework. I liked to think that maybe it was ash from one of Josh’s favorite books. It really didn’t matter what made the ash. It was one of the few things I had been able to collect from the house before I left forever. Before bulldozers came and knocked down the skeletal remains. Before the land was rendered flat and usable. Before the evidence of life as I knew it was gone.
I dropped the envelope in the hole and pushed dirt on top of it. I wanted to say a prayer, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore. I patted the low mound of cool earth. “I love you,” I whispered. The growing howl of the flames below the bluff buried the sound of my voice.
I turned my face toward the sky. “I miss you,” I breathed to a cool breeze that rushed across my cheeks and lips.
“I need you,” I mouthed, unable to muster any volume. I was afraid if I ever spoke those words aloud I would disintegrate, or worse, I would have to keep living.
I sucked in a deep breath and coughed, pulling in more smoke than air. When I stood, I stepped closer to the edge, closer to the heat. The roaring sound of a large aircraft cut through the night and a pinyon pine burst into flame like a high-reaching torch in the center of the smoldering embers at the base of the bluff. Just as the fire flared, water poured from the belly of the plane and a plume of steam rose in protest through the black smoke. I reeled back, stumbling on a low rock.
“You spend too much time close to the edge.” Ethan’s familiar voice reached me at the same moment his hand wrapped around my upper arm, stopping my stumble and pulling me upright.
“I like to watch,” I said.
He snorted with laughter, and stepped closer, dropping his hand from my arm. “What do you like to watch, Phoebe? The burning or the smoke?”
An awkward sort of cough escaped from me as I tried to cover any traces of the ritual I had just performed by kicking the new pile of dirt and wiping my face on my arm as if I had smoke in my eyes. “Sometimes…sometimes the clouds of smoke part and I can see the stars.”
Ethan pointed and his head tipped in my direction. “There, through the far side of the burn…”
My eyes followed the trajectory of his arm and landed on the thin crescent moon hanging just above the horizon. To the right of the waxing, sickle moon, a bright star blinked and vanished then reappeared, fighting its way through the smoke.
As I opened my mouth to speak an enormous owl shot like a rocket up from the base of the bluff, straight over our heads, a large mouse dangling from its talons.
“Wow.” Ethan spun to watch the owl until it disappeared. “At least all the little beasties running from the fire are good for someone. The owls are eating well.”
“As long as her nest is far enough away.”
Ethan squinted at me. The way he always did when he wanted to ask me a question he knew I wouldn’t answer. “Where is your nest?”
I faced him and tried not to smile. “I don’t have a nest.” He had asked me a thousand times and a thousand times I had refused to answer.
“Everyone has a nest.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shook his head in the hot air rising from the desert floor. He had that odd look of a boy who woke one morning a couple of days ago and discovered he had grown into a man. His brain didn’t seem to have caught up, not really. “You’re what? Seventeen?” He sounded a little whiny.
“Me too.” Ethan toed the sandy earth, his eyes focused straight ahead and he let out a little frustrated, snorty sort of husky breath. “You don’t have to be here. Where do you live?”
“How do you know I don’t have to be here?”
He faced me and his eyes sparkled in the orange glow from the fire. “Because you were in the same group as me two weeks ago at orientation, remember? Buck hollering ‘volunteers, over here!’ You and I went, leaving the people in handcuffs or attached to counselors behind. You might recall, on that fateful day, we were rather glad to be in the same group.”
I had to laugh, just a little. He was right, of course. I didn’t have to be here. I chose it, but that didn’t mean I wanted to talk about it to him or anyone else. “I live here, Ethan.” I kicked a rock to the edge of the bluff and watched as it teetered and fell, the clattering echo lost in the rush of sound from the fire and wind.
“You used to live somewhere else.”
“Why do you keep asking me?”
“You don’t fit.” The boyishness that had been there a second before vanished from his expression.
I huffed. “Awesome. I’ve heard that before.” Turning away from him, my toe caught in the soft mound of my memorial. It stopped my forward progress and words I never intended to say spilled from my mouth. “I’ve been in foster care for almost a year. I wanted to be here… or I guess… this was better than where I was. This is my nest.” I pressed my foot into the soft mound, securing the treasure buried beneath it, and stepped toward the bright lights of the camp behind us. “Let’s get back.”
“Wait,” Ethan said, catching my arm.
I stopped and watched as he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small, limp, white flower. He held it up for me to see.
“Where did you find that?” There were many things alive in the desert in July. Lizards and cactus and pungent sage, but I had not seen any flowers.
“Found it growing under a big sage.” He brushed his fingers against the wilting petals. “They’re usually gone by early July, but this one found a safe place. His eyes flicked up and back down quickly. “It’s kind of squished, but…” He knelt and pushed the stem into the center of my footprint in the soft mound of earth. “I was going to give it to you, but I think I should put it here instead” He brushed the dirt off his hands and smiled at me in a sheepish, crooked way.
My throat tightened. I wanted to be angry, to accuse him of spying, to rage and rant, but when my eyes met his, I couldn’t. The most important reason I came to this hell was to exorcise the demon of rage and hate that had driven my waking moments and most of my dreams for the better part of a year. Not only that, but that tiny white flower felt like a fitting tribute to what was buried beneath it.
“It’s a survivor, like you,” he said.
“What do you mean?” My voice came back strong, laced with fear at the possibility that someone had told Ethan my story. That I was exposed.
He shrugged. “Nothing.” His eyes searched my face and his expression became insecure. “You act like a person who lived through something. I…I have too. I keep asking you to tell me your story because I don’t know. I wouldn’t ask if someone had told me.” He turned toward the fire. “You can trust me. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Let’s go back,” I said again with finality, and I started toward camp with Ethan at my side.
He stopped questioning me as quickly as he started, seeming relieved to be free to talk about other things–like his crazy tent mates and his sore muscles. He chatted on as we made the short hike over uneven terrain. Each step moved us into cooler, cleaner air and away from the roar of the fire. I think I must have responded at appropriate times with an uh-huh, or a nod, but was I listening? Not really.
Just before my boots crossed the line of lights that broke the deep black of the desert, a subtle murmur of voices became audible from the tent city that housed firefighters and campers. Ethan and I parted ways at the entrance. He wished me good night and headed to one side of the camp. I brushed my hands off on my pants and went to the other.
My tent was at the very edge of the light on the far western side of the camp. Ethan and I were in the same group, but we were divided by gender into tents. Each old-style canvas tent housed four people along with whatever sparse belongings they carried with them. There was no luxury here, no air-conditioning. Hot meals were basic and often disgusting, but that’s not why we were here.
Some people, like me, were running from something and thought learning how to fight a forest fire might be worth something one day. Some were here because they were trying to fix something, like fulfill a community service project to stay out of jail.
A few of the campers talked compulsively about why they were here. Those were most often the ones that chose it over jail, or were using it as part of a drug rehabilitation program. There was counseling for any of us who wanted it. Some had to go. I didn’t, so I didn’t. I had no interest in talking and even less interest in anyone else’s sob story.
Many of the girls in the camp were like me and held their stories close to the chest. I had no idea why they were here and I really didn’t care. I’m sure they felt the same about me. We were here to support the real firefighters. In other words, we were first-class ditch diggers.
I moved past the first row of tents and stopped at the latrine to wash my hands and face. The latrine was an old trailer with running water and hissing fluorescent lights. I squinted and covered my eyes as the door slammed shut behind me. My eyes adjusted to the harsh blue light by the time I reached the sink and I examined my hands.
Black dust covered a few of my finger tips from the ash in the envelope. Dirt filled the space under my ragged fingernails, blisters and calluses formed a crescent on my palms from wielding a shovel day after day, and a thin band of tan skin stood out on my wrist from where the pounding desert sun slipped through the narrow gap between my gloves and shirt.
I slid my fingers through the small stream of water, moving them back and forth through the flow and watching the dirt glide away. Opening my palm, water poured across my skin, relieving the tense ache of the marks that covered them. I washed off, focusing on the soap bubbles blossoming on my fingers and avoiding the small mirror mounted precariously on the yellowing wall.
I counted the good things in my life as I scrubbed.
One: I was in the open air. I could breathe.
Two: The girls in my tent were tolerable.
Three: I was alive.
The last one was sort of a double-edged sword.
By the time I walked out of the latrine and back into the harsh division of light and dark caused by the spotlights, the low rush of voices rising from the tents had died away. Buck, the head of the youth program, looked up from his book and nodded at me. I nodded in response and headed for my “nest” as Ethan called it.
Pulling back the flap of the canvas tent, I stepped into the stale dark where all my tent mates were sleeping. I liked them best that way. Sarah, the incessant talker was only quiet when she slept. Tameka was the opposite of Sarah –the only noise she ever made was when she called out in her sleep. Except when she laughed. I had a feeling Tameka had an awesome sense of humor buried under all of her anger.
Anger was a part of all of us. Sometimes suppressed, sometimes raging, it punctuated every breath that any of us drew. I wondered, just for a second, what this group would be like if their lives weren’t all torn apart by some disaster or another. Tameka had been on the street. Sarah was a recovering addict on her last chance as a juvenile before she wound up in “big girl jail” as she was fond of calling a state penitentiary. And then there was Rosie.
Rosie rolled in her sleep and grunted. I froze, suspended over a dark fissure of fear. Rosie earned her way into this tent by showing some self-control. I use the term only because those are the words Buck used when he explained to the rest of us why she was moving in. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by self-control, but I suspected she was being rewarded for not committing any murders. She scared the hell out of me. If the rest of us were angry, Rosie was a volcano of fury, waiting to explode at any moment.
Thankfully, Rosie settled and slept on. I tiptoed to my cot, sat on the edge and went about undressing for bed. Boots, caked in sand, dirt, and ash. Socks, dusty and damp, the way they were before they dried into a petrified version of their former selves. Pants and shirt, covered in the day, warm from my body. I folded them, pulled on a sweatshirt, and wrestled my way into flannel pajama pants.
I slid into the open zipper of my sleeping bag and sighed, wrinkling my nose at the smell of dust and grime. My eyes skipped from sleeping girl to sleeping girl, taking in the differences between them–the color of their skin, the style of their hair, the places they called home. Each of those things contributed to their uniqueness, but their stories pulled them together. I wanted, in some small place in my heart, to belong to them. They weren’t exactly friends, but they spoke a language I didn’t speak. I’d never been on the street. I didn’t have an addiction. No one had ever abused me or abandoned me, not in the same way at least.
Ethan was right. I didn’t fit.
Letting out a low breath, I closed my eyes.
“Don’t lose yourself.” The words drifted through my mind in the same way the owl shot up from the desert floor –silent and powerful with an unknown destination.
It was the last thing my social worker said to me when she agreed to let me come to this God-forsaken camp. “Don’t lose yourself.”
I didn’t want to lose myself. Well, maybe a little. Mostly, I wanted to find something.
Something that made me feel. Something that made me reach forward instead of back.
I settled into the pillow and for a microsecond, I thought I might cry. Instead, I drifted to sleep and faced dreams I couldn’t escape.